Saturday, May 27, 2023

Quote of the Day (Theodore Roosevelt, on a ‘Square Deal’ for All Americans)

“If a man is good enough to be put up and shot at, then he is good enough for me to do what I can to get him a square deal.” —U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), Remarks Upon Receiving a Memento From the African-American Citizens of Butte, Montana, May 27, 1903

One hundred and twenty years ago today, Theodore Roosevelt tried out the same phrase for different audiences to describe his vision of an executive who would mediate the divisions roiling America: the “square deal.” The term proved so popular that several successors in the Oval Office adapted it to characterize their own domestic programs.

Over the past 20 years, while other White House occupants have risen appreciably (Ulysses S. Grant) or plunged just as drastically (Andrew Jackson) in C-Span’s Presidential Historians Survey, Roosevelt has remained consistently at #4, placing him among the “near great” among those holding our nation’s highest office. Crucial to his success was his use of what he called his “bully pulpit.”

Few Presidents have surpassed TR as a phrasemaker. Mark Mancini’s 2018 Mental Floss article identified 11 of them, including “square deal”—his shorthand for a fair arrangement.

When he came to the mining town of Butte in May 1903 on a cross-country tour, Roosevelt vowed to deal even-handedly between the claims of union workers and capitalists—a position that had won him considerable acclaim when he helped achieve a settlement in the anthracite coal strike crisis the prior fall.

That is why he told the Silver Bow Labor and Trades Assembly of Butte that day that he was “one who tries to be an American president, acting upon the principle of giving a square deal to each and every one.”

But during his visit, the President also acknowledged a gift from Butte’s black minority: a pair of silver scales. At a time when Jim Crow legislation was abridging voting rights and African-Americans were subjected to rampant lynching, he pointed out his personal debt to the group for their part at San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, the battle that made him a national celebrity—"In Santiago I fought beside the colored troops of the 9th and 10th Cavalry”—before the sentence in this “Quote of the Day.”

As this account in Dickinson State University’s Theodore Roosevelt Center indicates, TR, finding that the phrase was gaining traction with audiences, began to use it in other speeches and his private correspondence. It soon came to describe the hallmarks of his domestic policies: consumer protection, corporate regulation, and conservation.

When he began to stake out his opposition to successor William Howard Taft in 1910, Roosevelt came up with another phrase: the “New Nationalism.” TR and Taft's successful Democratic opponent in the Presidential campaign two years later, Woodrow Wilson (no mean phrasemaker himself), implicitly drew a contrast with the phrase “The New Freedom.”

Subsequent Presidents with similar ambitious legislative goals then used variations on these:

·         The New Deal”: Samuel Rosenman floated four different possibilities for the pledge that Franklin Roosevelt made when he accepted the nomination at the 1932 Democratic Convention. The candidate placed no special importance on what Rosenman called the “two monosyllables,” and the speechwriter disclaimed any intention of fusing the slogans of TR and Wilson, according to Safire’s Political Dictionary. But the phrase appealed to Progressives desperate for a return to activist government amid the Great Depression.

·         The Fair Deal”: The popularity of FDR’s domestic program led successor Harry Truman to call for his own comprehensive program in the 1949 State of the Union address. Whether he intended to or not, “fair” also echoed TR’s “square.” Only some of Truman’s proposals ended up being enacted. But his call for national health insurance would lay the groundwork for Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare program.

·         The New Frontier”: Just as FDR did a try run of “New Deal” when he accepted the Democratic nomination for President, John F. Kennedy used a variant when he did so in 1960. JFK used it to describe what he would do to meet the uncharted territory of new challenges facing Americans. But, even as he sought to distinguish this program from its forebears, JFK embodied the kind of youthfulness and energy that had characterized TR nearly 60 years before.

·         The Great Society”: First deployed at Ohio University and the University of Michigan in the run-up to his 1964 Presidential campaign, Lyndon Johnson’s phrase for his program contained no words that echoed any of these earlier programs. But, in his civil-rights and anti-poverty legislation, he sought to extend and surpass anything achieved by his predecessors.

·         The New American Revolution”: Speechwriter William Safire used this as the theme of a 1971 address in which Richard Nixon called for revenue sharing. The idea, as historian Richard Norton Smith noted, was to reverse “the flow of power, dollars and decisions to Washington that had commenced 40 years earlier with the New Deal.” Yet, while the movement has informed much of conservative policy ever since, the phrase itself never really caught on to describe the larger administration program.

·         The New Foundation”: “The New Spirit” didn’t really catch on after Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inaugural address. Two years later, his speechwriting team sought, with a notable lack of enthusiasm, to take a different tack in evoking the programs of his predecessors, according to Martin Tolchin’s account of the 1979 State of the Union address. But, though the phrase may have struck a chord with the builder in Carter, it came off as lukewarm and played out—a bad omen for his reelection campaign the following year.

·         The New Beginning”: Ronald Reagan, an admirer of FDR as a young man, continually re-deployed phrases of the three-term President, such as “rendezvous with destiny.” His echo of FDR’s “New Deal” during his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican National Convention and in his inaugural address the following year was fully in keeping with that rhetorical tendency. At the same time, while Reagan equaled TR’s success as a vote-getter, his full-throated embrace of free-market, loosely regulated capitalism was arguably a reversal of the Republican Roosevelt’s more ambivalent view of big business.

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